Rock Band is the first game I’ve played in ages where I’m actively trying to improve my skills at the game, replaying challenges at harder difficulty levels instead of going through it once, enjoying it but moving on to the next game on my shelf.

I’m still trying to figure out why this is. It’s a wonderful game, of course; I half believe that Rock Band and the other music games that we’ve seen recently are the most important cultural phenomenon of the last decade. Music has been woven deeply into our species’ psyche since before the dawn of civilization; the last half-century has seen a huge flourishing of the amount and variety of music in our midst, but most of us, most of the time, are just listening to the music. With Guitar Hero, that changed a bit: we’re not actually playing the music, we’re just pressing buttons with no direct relationship to the notes that are produced (and, in fact, we’re not producing the notes, we’re responding to them), but it gets us more involved in listening to the music. And, in my view, that’s unequivocally a good thing.

You see people occasionally lament that we should move away from the TV, stop pressing plastic buttons, and learn to play a real guitar; I won’t argue against that, but most people wouldn’t do that whether or not these games existed. So, given a choice between listening passively to the game or pressing buttons along with the game, I know which I’d choose, and I know which I’d bet would encourage more people to pick up a real instrument. And Rock Band takes it that much further, adding two new instruments where we really are more or less playing the music. (No caveat necessary at all for singing.) Given the success of these games, it wouldn’t surprise me if, ten years from now, all music was published in some sort of Rock Band-ish format; that sounds like paradise to me.

So: music and video games combined make up a big win in my book. (Though it’s not the only reason why I’m challenging myself against the higher difficulty levels: I’m sure the relative lack of narrative structure helps as well, giving me fewer other things to look for in the game.) And one thing I’ve been surprised to learn playing through the guitar on expert difficulty: the game really is a lot more musical on expert than it is on hard.

I’d noticed this to some extent in Guitar Hero: in easy mode, with just three buttons, there just wasn’t that much of a connection between what buttons you were pressing and the notes that came out, because even basic concepts like buttons further down the neck giving higher notes went completely out the window. And, of course, that continues with the higher difficulty levels: the fifth button makes a difference as well, especially as they use it more freely in expert. Equally obvious is that, when comparing expert to hard, you press a button on a significantly higher proportion of the notes in the actual music, so you get a richer musical experience that way.

What I wasn’t expecting to be a big difference between hard and expert: they use a much wider variety of chords in expert, switching between button combinations much more freely. And this isn’t done for the sake of making the game gratuitously difficult (which, as far as I can tell, it never is): the different button combinations really do represent different chords in the game. This allows them to bring out much more of the harmonic structure of the music you’re playing: you’ll be playing along in a certain sequence of finger positions, then you’ll have to switch to something new, and that’s exactly when the song changes key or the music takes a little twist somehow.

Another thing I’m surprised to find myself enjoying: hammer-ons and pull-offs. This is something that, historically, I suck at. Then I noticed that, actually, I could do them okay in the context of a brief trill, which got me noticing trills. That was enough for me until I got to the very hardest songs; out of necessity, I realized that, in those songs, in the more melodic sections you can actually go for quite some time without hitting the strum bar. Which, in turn, got me paying closer attention to the nature and structure of the melodic sections.

So I’ve learned a lot from the harder difficulty settings: they’ve got me paying closer attention to the music. I don’t want to claim that Rock Band is uniquely brilliant in this regard: I’m sure that, if I were into FPS games, I’d learn a lot about the structure of those games as I played them on higher difficulty settings or on multiplayer with more talented opponents. But it has opened my eyes in this context.

Which brings me to world tour. I had been playing that on hard; as Miranda’s gotten more familiar with the songs, though, I almost never have to rescue her, and I’d gotten far enough through the songs on expert in solo tour that I figured that it was time to play in expert on world tour.

The problem is, I still can’t play all the songs on expert. And we’re at a stage in our world tour career where we’re running into hard songs, and into multi-song random setlists. What this means is that, if I do play on expert, there’s a reasonable chance that we’ll run into a song that I won’t be able to finish. And that sucks.

So I went back to playing on hard. But it just wasn’t as fun: the challenge wasn’t there and, as I’ve discovered, the music isn’t there either.

What I want is to be able to play songs on a difficulty setting where:

1) I can finish them.
2) The gameplay brings out as much of the music as possible, given constraint 1.

(Side note: of course, 2 frequently correlates with difficulty, but I’m absolutely not looking for difficulty for difficulty’s sake. Which is one reason I haven’t yet played Guitar Hero III, despite having bought a copy to get a second guitar.)

And Harmonix is making me chose between these two constraints. Which would be fine in a single-player mode, but in multiplayer, 1 ruins the game for everybody. So I have to compromise on 2, which is a shame.

And doubly a shame because it would be so easy to fix! Fine, let me run through the song and fail once. But don’t force me to drop out of the setlist there: let me, on a per-song basis, decide to retry the song on a lower difficulty level. Heck, if you must, just let me fail that song completely and continue on the tracklist. But don’t make my band live in fear if I choose to play in expert.

(Does Rock Band 2 give such an option? They seem to be intelligently moving in the direction of not having traditional video game barriers get in the way of multiplayer enjoyment, including a no-fail mode, but I haven’t heard about this specific issue.)

That’s too bad, but I’m still having huge amounts of fun with the game, and I’m not about to stop playing. I have two songs left to finish on expert guitar; no bonus points for you if you can guess which two they are. I spent some time on Flirting with Disaster in practice mode (incidentally, I’d never explored practice mode before, but it’s rather well done); I’m confident that I will be able to make it through that song if I put in an afternoon on it. I’m not nearly as confident about Green Grass and High Tides, though.

To get back to hammer-ons and pull-offs: the non-solo sections of both of those songs are good tutorials for how to use those techniques, but their solos are where you really learn how long you can go without strumming. The problem there is that I don’t have a good recovery strategy: if I miss one note, then I have to strum again to get things going, and I’m still quite bad at finding the right timing to do that.

Except that I realized as I was going to bed last night: I actually don’t have to do that. I’d been using the Guitar Hero III guitar, but of course the Rock Band guitar has extra buttons on its neck exactly for this purpose. I clearly have to give that a try next weekend: it seems entirely plausible to me that I’ll be able to make it through both remaining songs that way. I’m still not entirely sure what I think about the solo buttons: hammer-ons, pull-offs, and strumming do add their own richness to the game, but on the other hand the problem of not being able to get back into a solo if I miss a single note wouldn’t happen on a real guitar, either. So, on the balance (and without having actually tried them out), I’ll provisionally declare the extra buttons to be a good thing; and anything to let me make it through all the songs is a boon in my book.

I’m not quite sure what I’ll do after finishing or giving up on expert. I was thinking about skipping the bonus tracks on expert, since they in general weren’t nearly as good as the regular tracks; but they’re not all bad, so I should probably play through them all once more so I’ll know which ones I want to export to Rock Band 2. And then the question is: which instrument to tackle next? Bass feels like an excessively easy route, and Miranda favors vocals (and Liesl sings along, for that matter), so I guess drums? Though I might throw some bass into the mix: I imagine I’ll learn more about the harmonic structure of the songs by playing bass than I would via any other instrument. Heck, maybe I’ll throw vocals in there, too: I certainly want to try that at some point.

And eventually I’ll get Rock Band 2. And there’s all that downloadable content out there – what should I get? I’m severely handicapped by not having listened to pop music much for any period in my life other than my four years of high school; a lot of great music has been produced in the last two decades, I just don’t know what it is.

So much to do; I’ll probably still be blogging about this game a year from now.

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